Updated on 03.26.08

The Connections Between Mental, Physical, and Financial Clutter

Trent Hamm

This post is a guest post by Erin Doland. Erin is the chief editor and writer of one of my favorite blogs, Unclutterer, and a twice-weekly columnist for Real Simple. Take it away, Erin!

One of the changes I noticed in my life when I decided to become an unclutterer was that I stopped worrying so much about the past and the future. I cleared clutter from my life, which immediately eliminated distractions. I had properly archived my photographs and other valuable mementos, so I no longer stewed on these memories. I set up functional systems for things like online bill payments, next action lists, and Google Calendar, so I stopped having anxieties about the future. My home became a sanctuary and a place of relaxation, and my office transformed into a place conducive to work and productivity. Ultimately, my uncluttering efforts left me able to focus more on the present and be mindful in the moment.

Being mindful in the present means to be aware of this specific moment in time. You can fully see, hear, touch, understand, and experience your surroundings and your life. You can appreciate the people and things you come into contact with in every moment. Being mindful in the present is something that seems so obvious and ideal, but isn’t as simple of a task as one might imagine.

Take the next 30 seconds and give it a try. Don’t think about errands or things you need to do, clear your thoughts of memories of past times, and just focus on this moment. What surrounds you? What can you hear? Are the muscles in your jaw tense? Are your ideas focused? How is your breathing — is it short and shallow or long and robust?

Now that your 30-second experiment is finished, how did you do? Was it easier or harder than you expected? Were you able to keep your thoughts focused on the present or was your mind swirling? Could you even sit still for 30 seconds?

Are you wondering what all of this has to do with finances? It actually speaks volumes on this subject.

If you can be mindful in the present, you will stop making impulse purchases because you can consciously evaluate a product and ask yourself if you really need it. You don’t operate on automatic pilot. You can easily foil retail marketing efforts. You don’t approach shopping with a “some day I might need this” attitude. You can better evaluate products because you’re aware of their components and inspect their quality. You are a mindful consumer, which is beneficial to your wallet and your commitment to simple living.

Since you are mindful in the present, you have exactly the amount of time you need to make decisions. You can evaluate things, objects, and stuff by asking yourself: Do I need this? What will I get rid of to bring this into my home? How many hours will I have to work to pay for this? Where will this object live in my house? Does this item help me to develop the remarkable life that I want to lead? Can I fully consume this item before it expires? What will I do with this item if I don’t value it or consume it? Is this the best item to meet my needs?

Mindful consumption doesn’t mean that you completely stop consuming — you do need to eat, after all. Mindful consumption means that you stop buying clutter and things that don’t match your life. You are aware that your things don’t own you, but that you own your things.

It can require a lot of practice to stay present in the moment. It’s much simpler for me now that I’ve cleared clutter from my life to be more mindful, but I’m far from perfect. I’ll interrupt others when they’re talking because I’m thinking about where I want the conversation to go instead of what the other person is saying. I’ll walk down a city block but then have to look up at the street sign on the corner because I’ve lost track of where I am. I’ll accidentally drive to the grocery store instead of the post office. I’m finding, however, that these moments of lost focus are becoming more rare than they used to be when I was surrounded by clutter.

Clear the clutter from your life and practice being mindful in the present. Ultimately, you’ll be a more mindful consumer because of it. If you want to learnmore about being mindful in the present, you can read more about it in this well-researched study (thanks to Gretchen at The Happiness Project for bringing it to my attention).

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  1. Erin,
    This is a great post and is something that I have been thinking a lot about lately.
    It seems every year when I do my taxes, the “clutter bug” in me comes out.
    I have documented my steps in becoming a more mindful consumer and I have noticed since I moved into my new house, that i have far less clutter and I am actually inspired by my new “minimalist” attitude.
    Thanks for the reminder and the great guest post here.

  2. Dave says:

    Eckhart Tolle wrote a whole book on this subject called The Power of Now. It’s a book I’d love to see Trent review.

  3. Erin says:

    Erin, this is powerful, concentrated stuff! I love it!

  4. Frugal Dad says:

    Erin, this a great post and one I needed to read. My life has become one distraction after another with full time work, trying to start up my blog part time, and being a husband and father to two children all the time (my story actually sounds a lot like Trent’s pre-self employment).

    I have found that these “open loops” constantly churning through my head have caused me to develop a bad case of insomnia. I told my wife the other day I feel like I can’t “turn my brain off” at night. Perhaps if I got more organized, and less cluttered I could focus on my key projects, and relax easier when the time came to unwind from it all.

    We enjoy your writing over at Real Simple. My wife is a fan of both yours and Holly Becker’s work on Simply Stated. It was a pleasant surprise to discover your post here on Trent’s blog!

  5. j-squared says:

    this is a great cross-pollination of blogs (cross-blogination?). thanks for the fresh perspective.

  6. Paul says:

    I liked this post very much and the link to foiling retail marketing efforts. I have subscribed to your email feed and look forward to hearing what else you have to say on the clutter subject. Any ideas on converting a clutterbug spouse to the non-clutter way of thinking?

  7. Louise says:

    Very sensible post. The more stuff you own, the longer it takes to find anything, the longer it takes to clean your house, the longer it takes to look do almost anything. The old rule that if you haven’t used something in a year, get rid of it, makes a lot of sense. As for setting up automatic bill payments and reminder lists, anything that we can do to free up both our time and our attention means we can concentrate on activities that will benefit us. I have automated as much as possible, and live in a fairly minimalist house. This doesn’t mean it is austere or unattractive, it simply means that everything I own is useful, beautiful and brings me joy. It also means that at any one time, nearly everything I have is being used or is on display so I can enjoy it, instead of stuffed in a cupboard forgotton about.

    My mother has a friend who recently refinanced her house in order to build a garage with loft, just to store books. I know for a fact that she has not read most of the books that she buys and has absolutely no idea of what books she actually owns. The last time I went to her house (before the garage was built) she had piles of books underneath pieces of furniture in her lounge room, and I noted not one or two but FIVE duplicate books in those piles. She is late for every appointment, has very scattered thinking, and her career is very much in jeapordy because of her non existent time management skills.

    Another friend of mine is a feng shui consultant and says that 90% of people use their garages to store unused junk rather than park their cars. Think of it, an expensive piece of machinery is sitting out in the weather exposed to the elements and losing value while the ski’s last used three years ago sit in the garage next to the childrens bicyles that they outgrew 10 years ago, and next to these is a box full of half empty paint tins from a job you did five years ago. Sound familiar?

    Getting rid of things that we have outgrown or don’t use feels fantastic! Everything we own takes a tiny bit of our attention, whether we realise it or not.

  8. Jen says:

    Erin — great post — I have enjoyed reading your posts for several months now.

    It is amazing what getting rid of clutter can do for a person mentally, physically, financially & creatively. It’s sad that “stuff” can have such a hold on us, but it’s reassuring and motivating to know that once we learn to let go, life can become what it’s supposed to be … beautifully “present”.

    Thanks for your thoughts & insight — we love it!

  9. KellyKelly says:

    If I get rid of something I haven’t used in a year, what happens when I DO need to use it in, say, 1.5 years?

    Then I have to go BUY it.

    Not too frugal.

    That is the conflict that makes me insane. I am not talking about a broken lawnmower or clothes I outgrew 10 years ago. I’m talking about the “humane trap” I used two summers ago to catch stray animals ($60 new) or the volleyball net I used for outdoor parties and my camping gear.

  10. Stephan F- says:

    @KellyKelly That drives me nuts, too. Usually when I throw something out I’ve been saving for “just in case”, within 2 weeks I need it and I remember throwing it out.

    But I now have to go out and buy it again, and because you can’t buy just one of whatever it was at the home improvement store, you have to buy a whole packs of 5-7 of them.

    We’ve started spring cleaning and a lot of stuff is going to be gotten rib of one way or the other.

  11. Mary says:

    Flylady has a great website that will help you if you are having trouble getting started uncluttering or just feel overwhelmed with the whole process. It’s free and full of wisdom.

  12. I feel the closeness to my heart reading your post. I practice mindfulness as you do.

  13. Phil says:


    Great article. I linked to it in today’s post at A Dinosaur’s Daydreams.

  14. Faculties says:

    Then there ought to be a five-year deadline for rare or high-expense items. But I read once that you should just regard Good Will as your large storage closet. It’s true that you can get most common items there. The other question would be: do you have lots of extra space, or are things crowded? If the basement and garage are only half full, then a humane trap or a volleyball net can be stored there without a problem. But if it’s all crammed in so that it feels bad to look at it and you can’t find what you want, then there have to be a lot of items that aren’t used even every five years, never mind every year.

  15. Faculties says:

    Also I should say that you can rent humane traps. I do think the nagging idea “I might conceivably use this again” keeps us hanging on to stuff. If you know a hoarder and start helping her go through her possessions, she’ll have a good reason why she might need every single one some time in the future. All 500,000 of them!

  16. Erin, your “mindful consumer” has the same concern as my “thoughtful consumer,” i.e., realize the importance of thinking before buying in order to make wiser choices. I agree that those loss of focus moments diminish along with the elimination of clutter, but mindfulness definitely requires a life-long commitment. Quite a challenge! I’m often frustrated by my failures, but I think it’s worth it to keep trying.

    Also, I had the pleasure of being interviewed last June by finance blogger Nina Smith for her Ten Money Questions series. We discussed the relationship between spending and thoughtful consuming. For interested readers, here’s the link (let’s test my HTML skills!):

    Ten Money Questions

  17. My apologies. My HTML skills are obviously lacking! Here’s the Ten Money Questions link, cut-and-paste version:



  18. Ms. Clear says:

    It’s definitely true that an organized home leads to a calmer, more stable existence. My mother refers to it as “executive functioning.” It’s the technical term for having one’s crap together.

    I sort my mail every day, put things away and avoid clutter like the plague. This helps me avoid stress and always remember important things, like paying bills on time. Cleaning out the fridge helps me to prepare meals with ease (though I have some shelve detrius that needs pitching).

    Stuff takes up space and gets dusty. Less stuff=happy!

  19. Hi Erin,

    Bravo… I would like to add that along with mental, physical, and financial clutter, the themes of consumption are really similar to weight loss. This is why we have a lot of fun with the metaphor of losing “Clutter-Pounds” from your home on our site, The Clutter Diet. We help people work it off doing our weekly project plans and provide them direct personal advice from pros who work in the field. It’s a great financial win if people want to do our program vs. hiring an organizer in person (can be out of many people’s budgets). Couldn’t resist commenting– thanks so much for the great article!

    – Lorie Marrero, Certified Professional Organizer® and Creator of The Clutter Diet®

  20. Annij says:

    I just discovered this site tonight and have enjoyed reading all the posts. Erin, your comments hit very close to home. I am a collector, my husband is a collector and after getting married in 1990 we have our collections. I have felt pressured to make changes over the past couple of years, but haven’t made much of a dent. My daughter came up for a couple of weeks and helped me liberate a lot of “stuff”. We even had a yard sale. I must admit she did a lot of it – I gave up yard sales many years ago.
    Having someone here to challenge me about keeping so much was very helpful. Now, I will be able to continue the process. My biggest problem is DH who is quite tied to most of the things in the house, and the house itself. We are two living in a 4 BR 21/2 B house and I cannot keep up with it anymore. It will be easier after I get it cleaned up. I want to downsize and he thinks we need to wait until ??? (whenever). Several months ago he discovered that he has a serious health challenge so I must temper my enthusiasm to empty our house with his health problems. I look forward to the day that I can look around and really enjoy our home without feeling weighed down by all the clutter.
    Annij @ 12:55 am April 3, 2008

  21. vinniekowalski says:

    thanks for the thoughtful post. however, i believe the goal is not to simply become a more mindful consumer; rather, we should seek the connection to the world around us that living in the moment provides. one can easily spend too much time poring over objects to deny ourselves – kind of like gluttony in reverse. anorexia nonetheless is as dysfunctional as overeating.

    instead, living in the moment allows one to focus on connections: with your family over the dinner table, with your work objectives, with your favorite author while reading a book before falling asleep. this is the clarity we seek and are at risk of missing if we still simply focus on the addition or subtraction of objects.

  22. MiZGib says:

    You are so Right! My husband and I have regular, weekly “staff meetings” where we meet to discuss the activities, plans and goals for the week or month. It’s an inexpensive lunch where we can meet up and make sure we’re on the same page about planning and priorities. Or just to talk. Even trying to do so at home amid the to-do list that is a house with a small child can be challenging. We can think clearly and be present at that moment without thinking about the laundry that needs doing or the chores that could be happening at the same time. It’s like date night without the sitter.

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  24. Shawn says:

    Clutter, whether physical or mental, causes distractions. I guess that’s why it’s called clutter. It not something that we need, but it’s there in front of us anyway.

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